In the file room of the fifth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Houston, there’s a sheet of paper that has eclipsed the Texas constitution, the laws of our Legislature, and traditions that have guided us since the days of the Republic. It’s an ordinary piece of paper, a white sheet of onionskin, legal size. Words formed of block letters are written across its face, in ballpoint ink so pale that it appears to be gray. The handwriting is steady and careful; the writer apparently used a slip of pasteboard to guide his hand, because the bottoms of his letters all stop at precisely the same point, as if on an invisible line. The first words written on the page are those of a pauper’s oath, “Motion To Proceed In Forma Pauperis.” They were not intended to be but they have become words of irony. In the past five years, that sheet of paper and thousands of others indexed to it—the text and proceedings of the Ruiz v. Estelle case—have cost Texas taxpayers more than $150 million, including $4 million in legal fees alone. During the next ten years the suit could cost the state nearly $1 billion more.
The man whose signature appears beneath the writing is David R. Ruiz, a diminutive, intense convict with only seven years of formal education. In June 1972, when he penned his suit against employees of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), the nation’s largest prison system, he was only 29. In the years since then, Ruiz has become a symbol of courage and tenacity, a figure mentioned almost daily in our press. In some quarters he’s a folk hero, the little man who beat a big, oppressive system, a David who brought a Goliath low. David Ruiz is the kind of man whom the Austin American-Statesman, without any cynicism, could quote describing himself as “a person whose only aims, hopes and desires are to improve, always to improve, and to contribute to humanity.” He is the standard-bearer of the Texas movement for penal reform.
But David Ruiz is no hero. He’s hardly deserving of admiration at all. In 1972 he already had a long prison record, for robberies he later admitted he had committed. After four stretches in reform school, Ruiz first went to prison in 1960 on an armed robbery charge. Released in 1968, he returned before the close of the year with three concurrent sentences, for another ill-fated stickup and two counts of robbery by assault. In June 1972 he was also wanted for murder on a warrant out of Ohio, where he had spent a part of the brief seven months between his prison terms. David Resendez Ruiz had not, as the wardens would say, been sent to prison for singing too loud in church.
He’d been less that a choirboy while wearing the white uniform of a Texas convict, too. During the trial of his lawsuit, he admitted that he had stabbed “approximately three or four” of his fellow inmates. He had escaped once and had several times been found with weapons. He had been put in solitary confinement some fifteen times for assaultiveness and had been denied parole for the same reason. David Ruiz didn’t show much respect for the law or for the rights of others. His explanation for one of the stabbings was “He had his hand in his pocket. I didn’t know what he had in his pocket, so I had a knife myself, and I used it.” Yet during his career as a convict, he’d filed a dozen suits alleging that the Texas Department of Corrections had engaged in unlawful practices and violated his rights. David Ruiz hasn’t shown much regard for the truth either. He is now back in prison, this time for aggravated perjury. Some of the charges he made in his petition weren’t credible, even by the farthest stretch of the imagination. For example, he asserted that the cells in which he had been confined—in various unairconditioned Texas prisons—were cold in May, August, and September. The question his suit raised was, Does a man like this, a hardened criminal, deserve the rights the rest of us have?
But Ruiz wasn’t the first or only convict to sue the Texas prison system, and in April 1974, after federal district judge William Wayne Justice set the Ruiz case on his docket, the judge married it to the suits of seven other prisoners. The most important allegations in their petitions concerned punishments administered to disciplinary violators in prison, an issue that federal judges had come to regard during the sixties as invoking constitutional protection. Using the prisoners’ petitions as a basis, Judge Justice engineered a proceeding—it isn’t over yet—in which issues not mentioned by the petitioners, like living space, recreation programs, and even prison landfill operations, also came under his review. As if the expert lawyers he appointed to represent the plaintiffs were not enough, the judge also brought in the United States Department of Justice as an adversary to the State of Texas. The trial of Ruiz v. Estelle, the most thorough in penal history, lasted eight months and heard 349 witnesses, most of them convicts. The result was a lengthy opinion from Judge Justice, followed by reams of court-approved settlement agreements, all aimed at reforming the prison system.
If you have ever visited a prison, it is easy to comprehend the desire for reform. Prisons are ugly, frightening places, and there is something fundamental in human nature that recoils from the idea of men and women locked up. I have toured all 27 Texas prison units. I talked to wardens, guards, shop and field supervisors, educators, and doctors. I looked at solitary confinement wings, cellblocks where transvestites were segregated, packing plants, canneries, and industrial shops. I sat in on disciplinary hearings, I listened at the doors of classrooms, I ate in prison cafeterias. What I learned was that prisons are inherently disheartening. They are places where men turn beets and other pigmented vegetables into eye shadow, lipstick, and rouge and where the nine-inch brass rods that support toilet floats are prized as instruments of mayhem. They are places where men dissolve antihistamines in coffee to get high and where soft whole fruits are valued as aids to masturbation, places where guards wear surgical gloves while serving food to convicts who are likely to throw feces back at them.
Physically, prisons resemble nothing so much as storm sewer tunnels or the undersides of freeway bridges, dim and full of noise. Hundreds of men in humbling cotton uniforms, unstarched and devoid of markings of rank, shuffle down hallways with the deepest resignation in their faces. Like prison reformers, I found myself thinking, “These men have become our victims” and “Nobody should be treated like that.” The very thought that men must spend their lives in a building where they can walk only when others open doors for them is repellent.
Prisons are barbaric places, but then, society doesn’t always have kind or polite or reliable solutions to problems. Sometimes we have to accept measures, like surgery and prisons, that we don’t like to contemplate, because as yet nothing better has come along to replace them. The Texas prisons, in the days before Ruiz, were not uplifting places—they aren’t that today and won’t ever be—but they served their purpose. They were finely turned to assure that discomfort and force served the interests of the guards and the order-keepers, not of the kept. It was a more efficient but no less ugly system because things were that way. Texas prisons were places where, in defiance of law, prisoners were punished by assault, by kicks and blows from guards and their convict allies, the building tenders. Men were thrown into darkened cells and kept incommunicado and wasting away on a diet of bread and water, as one old-time warden told me, “until their hearts got right.” Prisons were outposts in a world the rest of us didn’t want to enter, whose population we wanted to subdue. They thrived so long as discipline was harsh and summary. “The old system,” a veteran warden told me, “ran on fear.” Then he paused, as if in nostalgia for a boyhood sweetheart. “But you know what?” he continued. “It worked. We kept order that way.”
However ugly, the system did most of the things we can realistically expect a prison system to do. It did them well, and it did them cheaply. Before the trial of Ruiz v. Estelle, prisons in Texas were the safest, most productive, and most economical in the nation. Today, they are the most dangerous, yet their cost has more than quadrupled. Growing indiscipline has set new records and created new categories of cost. For example, last year so many convicts turned cafeteria spoons into shanks, or jailhouse knives, that the prisons had to abandon the metal dinnerware that had been in use for years and spend more than $30,000 to purchase disposable plastic utensils. At the system’s Coffield Unit alone, near Dallas, convicts who couldn’t be controlled by the new, Ruiz-era disciplinary code last year broke six thousand window panes, and convicts across the state vandalized so many ceramic commodes that they had to be replaced with sturdier stainless steel models at a cost of more that $500,000. In prisons, where guards do not carry arms, metal detectors were installed in hallways to keep convicts from carrying concealed shanks. By April of this year, ten inmates had been killed by their fellows, and the cost of keeping a man in prison had risen to more than $30 a day. The reformed Texas system is more difficult to control, more costly, and more dangerous to its occupants than ever before. To understand how the federal judiciary and state leadership destabilized the prison system, and why it will be years before our prisons can be returned to a sensible footing, it is necessary to understand something about the history and purpose of prisons.
Two Tiers of Justice
Prisons’ as we know them, are relatively new institutions. Before the American Revolution, jails existed in Europe and the British colonies, but their purpose was to hold accused men only until the conclusion of their trials. Upon conviction, felons were ordinarily sentenced to punishment by the cheap and swift means ancient society had provided: hanging, flogging, or exile. The first American prison was created in 1790 in Philadelphia at the urging of Quakers, who for humanitarian reasons advocated long-term solitary confinement as an alternative to capital and corporal punishment. Felons in the half-dozen prisons that the Quakers inspired were quartered alone in large, thick-walled cells that they never left. They took their meals there, and they bathed there. They were encouraged to spend their time in reading, self-improvement, crafts, and meditation, and they were prohibited from speaking to anyone but wardens, guards, and ministers. The Quakers hoped that in the quiet, wholesome solitude, felons would have a change of heart, rehabilitate themselves, and turn penitent. The word “penitentiary” is a reflection of that faded hope.
The Quaker experiment was not duplicated in other states and was soon abandoned in Pennsylvania because it was a political and fiscal liability. Quaker prisons were expensive because craftwork produced little income, they cost a lot to build, and feeding convicts in their cells required hired kitchen help. The security and mercy the Quaker system conferred on convicts became a punishment to taxpayers and led, in the early nineteenth century, to the general adoption of a revised prison model developed at a penitentiary in Auburn, New York. In the Auburn prison, convicts were expected to do industrial work to defray the cost of their keep. Every morning they were marched in lockstep to industries established inside the prison walls, where they worked shoulder to shoulder in silence.
The Auburn system was cheaper to administer, but it brought with it a new set of problems. Convicts who walked and worked together sometimes did speak to one another, and sometimes they assaulted each other. When they did, they were punished, usually by the old methods, hanging and flogging, and sometimes by solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water. Castigation of the flesh receded as a general punishment in America to become a punishment reserved for convicts. The nation adopted what was, in effect, a two-tiered system of justice. Citizens who committed crimes at large were tried and sentenced to prisons. Convicts who committed crimes in prison were given summary administrative hearings and were punished by capital, corporal, and dietary means.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the cost of maintaining the growing convict populations strained the country’s already exhausted public resources, and Auburn-era standards were allowed to lapse. The Auburn model, which had adopted a rule of silence and single-celling (a one-man, one-cell living space allotment) from its Quaker forerunners, gave way to the penal environment that is familiar today, one characterized by shared cells, dining rooms, and showers. In the more congested, essentially freer setting, convicts had extensive, unsupervised access to one another. While in prison they renewed old outlaw ties, analyzed past crimes, planned and sometimes committed new ones.
In 1829 the Mexican government drew up plans for an elaborate prison in Texas but never got around to building it. The Republic of Texas was impoverished, and many of its citizens thought of it as an unofficial penal colony where men came to escape punishment elsewhere. Being a kind of prison itself, the republic therefore built no prisons; its punishments were those that would have been used in prisons elsewhere. Murder, rape, armed robbery, burglary, and horse theft were punished by hanging. Men convicted of manslaughter were branded with the letter M, and T was burned into hands that thieved. The forty stripes of biblical prescription were emblazoned onto the backs of shoplifters, cattle rustlers, and other minor offenders. The chief drawback to the republic’s justice was that juries, in horror of its penalties, sometimes recoiled from assessing guilty verdicts. And in some counties no one could be found to inflict punishments with the noose, whip, and branding iron.
The lack of a prison system did not stand as a bar to the state’s admission to the Union—an indication that its punishments were not considered terribly cruel or unusual or that penal affairs weren’t important to Congress—and not until 1850 did the Legislature provide funds for the first Texas prison, built on the site of today’s Huntsville, or Walls Unit, where each year the Texas Prison Rodeo is staged. The new state’s prison planners favored the Auburn system, and during the Civil War, prisoners working in a textile mill at the Walls produced large quantities of scarce cotton goods for the Confederate Army and the state’s war widows. But after the war the plant’s products were unwelcome competitors in the free marketplace, and like most other states, Texas began leasing convict labor to private contractors.
In the North, industrialists leased convict labor to operate plants built inside prison walls. Texas experimented with the industrial system by building a lignite-fired smelter at a prison near Rusk. When the Capitol was built, the Rusk plant produced much of the metalwork for the building. But as a leasing venture, the Rusk plant was a failure. The machinery needed to establish the plant and the skilled workmen needed to supervise and maintain it were hard to come by in nonindustrial Texas, and railroad lines for carrying its products to market were non-existent; a rail line between Rusk and Palestine, built to service the prison, was also a commercial failure. The prison system was simply not capable of leading the state’s slow progress toward industrial development.
In Texas and the rest of the preindustrial South, convict leasing took a different form, resulting in a new and lasting prison model. In the South, convicts had to be taken outside the prison walls to find work, usually on plantations, in timber camps, and on road gangs. Conditions in the camps and farms were radically different from those in the Auburn prisons. There were no cells of concrete and steel. Instead, convicts were housed in enclosed trailers, canvas tents, and wooden dormitories, structures not designed with security in mind. Preventing escapes became a preoccupation of guards, of whom there were never enough. Salaried employees constituted a business expense, an item of overhead for the state and its lessees.
In the camps, physical barriers were replaced by eyes, ears, whips, dogs, and shotguns as the chief deterrents to escape. Reliable prisoners were recruited as foremen in the fields and as informants for the guard force. Some of them exploited their positions of trust. They used hoes, axes, and other work implements as weapons to settle scores with enemies, and according to Texas A&M historian Donald Walker, some of them took advantage of their open-air surroundings to operate stills. But though the leasing system was etched with corruption and pocked with brutality, it was financially successful. By the turn of the century Texas had decided, as other Southern states would, to go into the farming business for itself. The state purchased land near Huntsville and along Oyster Creek and the Brazos River, south and west of Houston. The prison farms established there became the heart of the Texas prison system.
From the teens forward, convicts in Texas were nearly self-supporting. They grew cotton, processed it in the system’s gins, and spun it into cloth; the Goree Unit near Huntsville, which housed women prisoners, became the system’s garment shop. The farms produced beef and pork and turned fats into soap; inmates at the Walls Unit shaped brogans out of hides. Convicts planted and harvested the vegetables they ate and put them up in the system’s own canneries. Coffee wasn’t a practical crop for Texas, but the system imported beans, roasted and ground them, and packaged them itself. It fired brick in ovens at the units west of Houston, and convicts built their own prisons, with walls and bars and cellblocks, like prisons anywhere else but with exceptional amounts of dormitory space.
In industrial states, at the insistence of the workers’ movement, convict labor and prison-made goods were often banned from the market, but in Texas, the prison agriculture system could absorb nearly unlimited numbers of unskilled hands. In the Northern states and in the federal prisons, the few convicts with protected jobs—stamping license plates and sewing mailbags, for example—were sometimes paid token wages for their work; but most convicts were left idle, and gang activity, including inmate-on-inmate murder, filled the void. Prisoners in Texas were given only clothing, bedding, meals, tobacco, postage stamps, and envelopes, but they were kept busy and kept safe. Envious penal administrators in Northern and Western states toyed with the idea of farming, but too many of them had already located their prisons inside capital cities and industrial centers.
On paper, at least, the Texas system was nearly ideal. Hard work, study, and obedience were the pathways to a better prison life and a convict’s early return home. All incoming prisoners in good health were assigned to the line, or field work force. Ordinarily, new convicts were assigned to tight, two-man cells too. The system required them to attend part-time prison schools until they could pass a basic education test, and eventually it offered high school, vocational, and college courses as well. After proving themselves in the fields, inmates became eligible for transfer into other jobs, and because field labor was hard and its discipline harsh, “job” in Texas prison parlance came to mean any work assignment other than stoop labor. After a few months on a cellblock, well-behaved prisoners also became eligible for bunks in the barrackslike dorms. At each step up the ladder of prison-house advancement, including the completion of education and training courses, Texas prisoners were rewarded with increased “good-time” rates: according to the plan, exemplary convicts could shorten their sentences by as much as thirty days for every thirty days they actually spent behind bars, and even beginning convicts, fresh on the line, were granted twenty days of additional credit for every thirty in confinement. Liberal good-time and parole policies made it possible for a man with a twenty-year sentence to be free in less than four years.
Inmates who showed vigor at work, whose disciplinary records were clean, and who demonstrated an ability to hold their own—or prevail—over their peers became candidates for the supervisory level of the convict world: building tenders. Like squad leaders in an Army barracks, they wore three hats. They were janitorial overseers, institutional snitches and stand-in sergeants with disciplinary powers. They were the ward chairmen and sometimes the cops on the beat of their indoor neighborhoods. They were convicts who had risen from being one of “these thieves” or “those old thangs”—the usual guard terms for inmates—to that of men who could drink coffee, eat sandwiches, even play poker and wheedle favors from their keepers. Only one other class of convicts rivaled the buildings tenders: the class of bookkeepers, barbers, cooks, and yardmen assigned to system offices and bigwigs. But building tenders were arguably in a stronger position because their privileges and powers lasted around the clock. Some of them dictated television program selections, and some decided who could go to gym; sometimes they decided who could go to sick call. Each of them organized a clique of helpers and stooges, called runners and strikers, whose unofficial purpose was to protect the building tender from his enemies and to make sure that his enemies could not be protected from him. The cells of building tenders were never locked, and building tenders could take cafeteria meals at the hours of their choosing. A few of them kept parakeets or gerbils or boyfriends or weapons in their cells, from which some of them operated protection, loan shark, or male prostitution rackets. To find more opportunity than the building tenders had, a man had to make parole and start a new life in the free world.
If the golden age in Texas penology has already been reached—and I think it has—it came during the sixties, as a result of expansion of the system’s industrial and educational programs. For the first time industries were inaugurated not merely to satisfy the prison system’s internal needs but to earn revenue as well. In new plant operations, convicts began producing highway signs, recapping tires, rebuilding vehicles, manufacturing furniture, and making computer and microfilm records for other state agencies. For the first time, too, free-world diplomas and tradesmen’s certificates were awarded to convicts, and long-termers began earning graduate degrees. This industrial program put the Texas prison system in a league with the Auburn-prison states, and its educational program was unmatched anywhere.
Because most prisons in the South operated with inmate supervision and on an agricultural basis, they were more cost-efficient than those elsewhere. But penologists took a dim view of them because their rural settings, their agricultural work programs, and their supervisory and racial practices seemed archaic. Texas stood out as an exception; its prisons were the showcases of the Southern prison model. Building tenders or their analogues, inmate guards, were a legacy of the beyond-the-walls leasing era and were used in most Southern prisons. But in some states they had inordinate powers. Inmates in Arkansas and Louisiana, for example, were given firearms to use while supervising work in the fields, and some of them were even assigned to duty in guard towers. Texas outlawed whipping in 1941, but in other Southern states—Arkansas is again the most notorious example—it continued, in full legality, well into the sixties. Early in that decade, Texas closed its last all-black prison unit. Convicts in Texas, as in the North, were segregated by cell-block or dormitory, while in neighboring Southern states black convicts continued to live out their prison lives in dilapidated units; new facilities were reserved for whites. Texas alone embodied the fiscal virtues of the Southern prisons without succumbing to their vices. It was controversial because of its success.
But some academics, some reformers, and even some penal administrators—the chief of Oklahoma’s prison system notably among them—shared a complaint about Texas prisons. They said that the Texas system was inhumanely restrictive, that its prisons were houses of discipline, not houses of hope. “The Texas Department of Corrections is probably the best example of slavery remaining in the country,” Arnold Pontesso, the former Oklahoma prisons director said on the eve of the Ruiz trial. Alvin Bronstein, a Washington lawyer and head of the national prison project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that what he saw in the state’s prisons reminded him of “the old autocratic lockstep penitentiary” of the early Auburn days. The president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, another prison watch committee, said that the orderliness of Texas prisons was based on “the quiet and respectfulness of men who are completely cowed.” What the critics suspected—indeed, what some of them said they knew—was that the object of the Texas system was to break the resentment, rebelliousness, and even the spontaneity of convicts by any means necessary. Its administrators had seemingly pledged themselves to three chilling watchwords—intimidation, control, and autocracy—and when modern-day rehabilitation programs were mentioned, they practically reached for their shotguns.
What the critics charged was true. Intimidation was the object of the system’s disciplinary procedures. Convicts who were late in returning to work from an appointment inside the prison were ordered, like tardy schoolchildren, to “stand on the wall” in the hallways of their units, sometimes with their noses or toes—or both—touching the wall. Laggards and disrespectful or deceitful inmates were subjected to humiliations similar to those used in Marine boot camp. Instead if being ordered to peel potatoes or do push-ups, they were put to work shelling peanuts during leisure hours or made to perch—sometimes overnight—atop wooden soft-drink cases stacked on end. More serious violations were punished more severely. Until the instrument was outlawed, assaultive and menacing prisoners were held to the floor and whipped about the buttocks with “the bat,” a leather strap attached to a wooden handle.
But those punishments, though not always legal, were publicly performed. Nobody denied that they existed, and nobody tried to keep the public and the prison system officials from knowing that they were frequently imposed. Throughout the system’s history, however, despite the efforts of reformers within and without, guards indulged in simple, straightforward, punitive assault. Sociologist James W. Marquart, who wrote his doctoral dissertation about his observations as a guard in 1981 and 1983—and who generally defends the use of force by guards—reported that at the tough Eastham Unit, disrespectful, foulmouthed convicts were sometimes given a “tune-up,” or ear-boxing. Prisoners who assaulted their fellows or threatened offices were sometimes taken to storerooms or officers where guards gave them an “ass-whipping,” in which flashlights and nightsticks replaced the outlawed bat. Convicts who used weapons to attack their peers or who assaulted officers were subdued, then often kicked and beaten with such severity that they required medical attention. When incidents like those were exposed, prison directors sometimes reprimanded, demoted, or fired the guards or wardens responsible—and sometimes they took no action at all. Apologists said that abuse was inevitable in any system of authority, and guards muttered under their breath that it was impossible to maintain discipline among convicts without resort to swift, corporal action.
The excesses of the guards, however, paled in comparison with those of the building tenders, who used violence not only to comply with requests from guards but also for motives all their own. During the Ruiz trial, a former building tender provided the following account of a sexual assault by two other building tenders, Butch Ainsworth and Charlie Robertson.
They wrapped a wet blanket around him first; plugged an extension cord into a socket. The ends of the extension cord were insulated, and they stuck this energized electric cord to the wet blanket. This wasn’t getting the results that they wanted, so they unwrapped [the] inmate . . . made him stand up on the commode in Ainsworth’s cell and then placed the electric wires to his body and into the water. This caused [the] inmate . . . to scream from extreme pain, to begin to tremble, even to cry, and to submit to the homosexual act.
Sociologist Marquart says that during his time in the Eastham Unit several building tenders openly kept chains, clubs, and shanks in their cells and lockers. In at least one unit, Ramsey I in Brazoria County, similar weapons were confiscated from building tenders by a junior officer, only to be returned to them by his superiors the following day. The evidence from a variety of sources indicates that intimidation, ranging from humiliating punishments to dietary restrictions to simple assault, was always in use in Texas prisons. Some guards and administrators protested the frequency of its use or its application in individual cases, but nobody believed that the prisons could be managed without it.
The Texas prison system not only punished its unruly convicts by summary physical means but, as its critics pointed out, it also restricted the behavior of all inmates at almost every turn. Convicts were forbidden to draw, hang, or tape pictures on the walls of their dorms and cells and to possess any item of commerce—even harmless items, like cowboy boots—not sold in prison commissaries. They were ordered to address their keepers as “boss” or “sir” or by titles of rank and to make up their bunks each morning before work. They were not allowed to grow moustaches or beards or to let their hair hang below the ear, and the grooming code for guards and civilian employees included the same restrictions. Prison chiefs, like military commandants, believed that some rules were necessary merely for discipline’s sake.
Thousands of restrictions were enforced for what were termed security reasons. Incoming mail was censored, and racist and gun-related publications were banned; convicts could watch Grand Dragons on television newscasts but not communicate with them by mail or in person. The number of visitors was limited, and the names of prospective visitors were cleared through law enforcement agencies. Convicts could visit with their mothers but not with their real or suspected underworld buddies. Prisoners were allowed to make telephone calls for emergency reasons, but only when the tolls were reversed and only in the warden’s or the chaplain’s office; because prisoners were denied access to pay phones, they could not, as did the federal prisoner who once called me, charge their conversations to fake or purloined credit card numbers. There were even restrictions on medications. Judge Justice was displeased to learn that asthmatic inmates were not allowed to keep inhalers in their cells or lockers. Yeast was weighed and registered like radioactive material, and guards kept a close eye on the bread-baking process because any convict who could pinch an ounce or two of yeast or dough could use it to make “chock,” or jailhouse hooch. Few prisoners were allowed to go home on furloughs; administrators said that many who did came back with drugs secreted in balloons in their bowels. When going to their jobs or the cafeteria, convicts had to walk a line, literally—lines were painted on the hallway floors—in single file; guards said that it was easier to keep an eye on them that way. Texas wardens and guards believed that it was fair to make the convict majority suffer for the likely transgressions of the minority because the totality was certifiably errant. The problem was not so much that of knowing which convicts to trust, guards said, as that of remembering that none were to be trusted unless the prison system could benefit.
Another characteristic of the Texas system was the autonomy of its prison director and wardens. Legislators happily stayed out of prison affairs so long as costs were low and scandals rare. County sheriffs and district grand juries did not look behind the walls of a system that sent them few criminal complaints to investigate, even though they knew that crimes were committed in prison. The state’s prison board, composed of gubernatorial appointees who served on a part-time, unsalaried basis, was without penal expertise and usually rubber-stamped proposals from the system’s director, the autocrat of the prison world. Though newsmen and politicians from time to time created an uproar over prison conditions, reform efforts at the state level were always too short-lived, too ill-informed, and too impotent at the Legislature to effect fundamental changes. Nothing disturbed the hegemony of the system director and his wardens, even if they sometimes had to discard old punishments and procedures.
The system director, appointed by the prison board, named the wardens at each unit. The paragon of prison directors was Dr. George Beto, a former Lutheran educator and prison board member, hired in 1962. Beto, now a professor at the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, is a large, lumbering man with twinkling eyes and a pastor’s pulpit voice. Even during his forties, when he took over the prison system, he had a grandfatherly air. His administrative style was equally paternal.
Beto’s predecessor, O. B. Ellis, had begun centralizing authority in the director’s office at the expense of the wardens, and Beto continued the process. Not content to read reports from his wardens, he made weekly visits to the units, stalking their hallways and fields, making inspections, observing and chatting. Touring was his chief administrative tactic, and it won him the nickname “Walking George.” “I got around quite a bit,” Beto says, “because that gave both the employees and the convicts the idea that I might know what was going on.”
In those days convicts from all fifteen prisons were sent to the Walls Unit in Huntsville for release. Most mornings Beto walked across the street from his office to the Walls, where he randomly interviewed outgoing prisoners. He also established a practice allowing convicts to send sealed, uncensored letters to him. The reports he got from prisoners were often petty, baseless, and exaggerated, he says, but like his walking visits, they put wardens and guards on notice that they were under scrutiny. Occasionally Beto ordered wardens to be transferred from one unit to another, sometimes with the sole object of dislodging entrenched regimes, and several times he reprimanded, demoted, and fired wardens and guards for incompetence. His paternal presence and his firsthand knowledge of prison details won him the trust of legislators, who, to help him keep an eye on life in distant units, provided Walking George with an airplane and a pilot.
George Beto and his wardens believed that rehabilitation could happen, but they didn’t believe it could be wrought. They believed that men could be prepared for gainful, lawful lives, but they didn’t believe that criminals could be remotivated by the prison experience. What they observed was that age, not social programming, sapped the propensity for crime; about two thirds of the young men released from prison returned after committing new crimes, but mature men, 35 and older, didn’t come back so often. Rehabilitative programs in the Texas system matched the view of its leading personnel. Texas prisons taught convicts the habit of hard work and provided them with educational and technical skills that could ease a man’s transition to an honest vocation. Prisoners were encouraged to attend church and sessions of the convict chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, but group therapy wasn’t available behind bars, and psychological counseling was rare. The TDC rehabilitation program, its critics said, was a nineteenth-century program, behind its times. It placed the responsibility for rehabilitation not on the shoulders of the director or the system or the state but on those of the convict.
Beto made no secret of his doubts about rehabilitation, and he even scandalized critics by saying that sterilization of sex offenders would be an effective means of rehabilitating them. His comments and the slow pace at which the TDC put psychologists on the payroll heated up the rehabilitation controversy, which in Texas, as everywhere, was anything but new.
During most of the present century the prevailing theory of rehabilitation, called the treatment model, has been that criminal behavior, like alcoholism, is most effectively corrected when regarded as a disease. Beginning in the Progressive era, and especially during the fifties and sixties, social scientists and reformers experimented with a whole new gamut of “cures”—psychotherapy, drug therapy, milieu therapy, even plastic surgery—as means to rehabilitation. Elected officials found relief in the effort. By promising rehabilitation, they could vow to reduce penal expenditures and at the same time ease the worries of constituents who had family members behind bars. But in the end, what researchers found was what Beto and the old-line wardens had known—that men turn away from crime with age.
In 1974 New York sociologist Robert Martinson and a team of research assistants found that “with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” One of the exceptions Martinson found was too radical for acceptance. In a twenty-year Danish experiment, sex criminals were offered release from prison if they would submit to castration. More than 50 per cent of those who refused the offer returned to prison after committing new crimes, but only 12 per cent of the sterilized group came back. It was that experiment that Dr. Beto had alluded to when he’d mentioned sterilization of sex offenders. He spoke not from the barbarism his detractors suspected but from an informed penologist’s point of view.
Martinson’s findings were checked by other researchers, and throughout the seventies new reports were added to the balance, with generally compatible results. What researchers of the decade found was that men released from prison in Europe and North America usually returned after committing new offenses, regardless of the programs available for rehabilitation. Today most penologists and prison administrators shy away from touting rehabilitation. “Prison is not the place where you’re going to improve a man’s character,” says current Texas prisons director Ray Procunier, a veteran of the once-innovative California system.
Dr. Beto resigned as prisons director in August 1972. His timing was felicitous. Beto’s handpicked successor, pink-faced W. J. Estelle, a second-generation California prisons manager, would have a much tougher time for reasons largely beyond his control. The nation was still living in an era of what appeared to be limitless prosperity. Pronouncements about a War on Poverty and a Great Society had convinced us that we could guarantee a secure and uplifting living standard to all our countrymen, and prisoners were in many ways seen as a displaced sector of the poor. The experiences of the civil rights movement, of the Vietnam debacle, and of the Watergate scandal had by the mid-seventies also disposed many Americans to trust not public officials but their accusers. In that era, when Eldridge Cleaver, the Soledad Brothers, and Attica convicts were nearly heroes, prison administrators did not fare well in the courts. Altogether, the penal systems of forty states and territories came under federal review during the decade, with results similar to those in Texas.
The seventies were also a time of sky-rocketing crime rates, when prison populations doubled everywhere. The decade’s new convicts were not only more numerous but they were more trouble too. They lived by the tempo of prime-time television, where violence was so common as to appear normal, and as a group, they were more violent than their predecessors, both on the streets, where the murder rate doubled, and behind bars. They were the products of a less regimented society. By 1970 two fixtures of adolescent discipline, the schoolteacher’s paddle and the drill sergeant’s push-up orders, were illegal. Convicts expected the same prohibition to apply in prison. On the streets most cons had learned to turn to their advantage the Warren court rights for suspects and defendants, and they expected the same kind of constitutional leverage in prison. The new generation was less prepared for institutional life than any in memory. The constitutional question they and their lawyers began to raise in the courts boiled down to this: how much can prisons punish, confine, and deprive?
For years the courts had stayed out of penal affairs. The attitude of most judges was expressed in an 1871 Virginia court finding that “the prisoner has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights [and] is, for the time being, the slave of the state.” But the prevailing view was exposed to an obvious incongruity: the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and it is difficult to see whom that prohibition was supposed to protect if not convicts. Our Founding Fathers apparently meant to grant even felons the right to humane punishment and, perhaps, other rights as well.
The change in judicial posture began with a mere one hundred words from the Supreme Court. In its decision in Cooper v. Pate, a 1964 case brought by an Illinois double murderer, the court reversed an appellate finding that the plaintiff had no constitutional grounds on which to sue his keepers for the right to receive literature from the Black Muslim sect. The decision in Cooper v. Pate ended the long-standing presumption that convicts had no rights and opened the door to an epoch in which suits against penal administrators would successively minimize the consequences of a felony conviction.
After Cooper v. Pate, prison administrators began to take conciliatory and preemptive steps. Beto even invited a Houston Muslim minister to hold services in Texas prisons. But the Texas system, like most others, was peppered with suits anyway. The most important of them was Novak v. Beto, a 1968 suit that challenged solitary confinement on Eighth Amendment grounds as cruel and unusual punishment.
The suit was heard in 1969 in the court of federal district judge Woodrow Seals of Houston, who upheld the state in an opinion chock-full of praise for Dr. Beto and the Texas prisons. Novak reached the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1971, and that court’s majority found that solitary confinement served a legitimate purpose as “a deterrent and a punitive force.” But in a broad and lengthy dissent, one justice called for “regular meals, light and bedding in solitary cells.” Anticipating that the dissent would attract additional support in the Supreme Court, Beto ordered some changes. In the solitary confinement wings of his prisons each cell had two doors: a traditional barred door and a solid steel door that shut out light and sound. Beto ordered the solid doors left open, which allowed the prisoners to talk to each other, and also replaced the bread-and-water diet with vegetarian fare. His precaution was legally unnecessary. In October 1972, when the Supreme Court reviewed the Novak record, it voted not to give the case a new hearing. In effect, the practice of solitary confinement, including the bread-and-water diet, had been upheld.
The Texas system had won the Novak case, but only on the face of the matter. It had lost in two important ways. First, in anticipation of judicial scorn, Beto had mollified the system’s tough disciplinary code. Second, the system had acquired a formidable new adversary, William Bennett Turner, a San Francisco attorney who had joined in arguing the case. Turner, a handsome, dark-haired man then in his early thirties, was a Texas native who had been raised in the Midwest and educated at Harvard. He was, by most estimates, the nation’s leading expert on penal law, and he was an open partisan of convicts. He was opposed to prison punishments, solitary confinement included, and he believed that when they couldn’t be attacked in the courts as cruel and unusual they could be attacked on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits deprivations of liberty without due process of law. By winning decisions that increased the paperwork and procedural steps needed to punish prisoners, Turner believed he could make such punishments a rare resort. His strategy, essentially one of erecting bureaucratic obstacles to punishment, threatened the future of Texas prison discipline and drew the attention of a judge not yet involved in prison affairs, William Wayne Justice. Two years later, when Judge Justice decided to appoint an attorney to represent the Ruiz petitioners, William Bennett Turner was the man he sought.
The System Crumbles
The Ruiz case didn’t go to trial until October 1978, and the interval served the plaintiffs well. During the six years between the suit’s filing and the first day of trial testimony, federal courts paved the way to victory with rulings on behalf of prisoners, and Texas prisons became crowded—nearly 1000 of the 26,000 inmates were sleeping on the floors of their units—creating yet another issue for litigation. For more than two years before the trial opened, expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, as well as attorneys for the Justice Department and Turner’s firm, had walked the hallways of the Texas prison system, inspecting it from top to bottom, interviewing convicts and taking depositions from prison officials, building a case. The trial, held in Houston, provided a forum for a dozen complaints that the original petitioners hadn’t mentioned, like crowding, plumbing, and work rules, as well as the disciplinary grievances that were the heart of the case.
So exhaustive was the trial that not until December 1980, fifteen months after it ended, did Judge Justice summarize his findings of fact in a memorandum opinion that was 118 pages long. The memorandum opinion was a warning. It didn’t order changes but instead indicated the areas in which Judge Justice planned to order changes in a later decree. To alleviate overcrowding, for example, Justice indicated that he would ban double-celling. He also said that he wanted the system’s eight hundred building tenders stripped of all authority and replaced by about four thousand salaried guards. He wanted medical care radically upgraded, and he wanted an end to summary discipline.
Judge Justice was also critical of solitary confinement, even in its mollified form. The diet in solitary was nutritionally inadequate, he pointed out, causing prisoners to lose weight. “It is apparent that, by this diet,” the judge’s opinion said, “TDC attempts to starve its most troublesome inmates into abject submission.” Because prisoners there sometimes suffered hunger pangs, Justice found that solitary confinement constituted corporal punishment. Citing the federal prison system, which had abandoned the punishment years before, the judge also found that solitary confinement was penologically unnecessary. What he didn’t point out was that year in, year out, with fewer prisoners than the Texas system and a lower proportion of violent offenders, the federal system had led the nation in the number and rate of inmate murders.
The four months between the judge’s memorandum opinion and his decree spelling out the changes and ordering them were the most critical in the whole Ruiz affair. The opinion warned the state’s attorneys that they had to settle several issues out of court or be prepared to appeal. Spokesmen and attorneys for the state were divided about what to do. Ed Idar, a middle-aged assistant attorney general who had been in charge of the case since its inception, thought that appeal should be the chief line of defense. He also argued that if settlement talks were begun, the state should not settle any issues until all of them could be settled in a single pact. He was especially insistent in regard to medical issues. Mark White, then attorney general, and several TDC attorneys disagreed with Idar, and their views prevailed. Negotiations with the plaintiffs’ attorneys began. The strategy the state pursued was to seek agreements in anticipation of the judge’s decree and, with luck, at terms more merciful to the state than those the judge was expected to impose. Or at least that’s what White and his cothinkers say today.
The record tells a different story, at least where several issues are concerned—most important among them, solitary confinement. Despite his distaste for the practice, Judge Justice in his memorandum opinion conceded that the controlling precedent regarding solitary confinement was Novak v. Beto. Since that case had upheld a stiffer solitary regimen than was formally in practice during the Ruiz suit, solitary confinement should not have been an issue for settlement. Had the judge ordered that it be further weakened, the likelihood is that his order would have been struck down on appeal. Despite that, when the settlement talks began, William Bennett Turner demanded that the state make concessions. He wanted three full meals a day provided to convicts in solitary, and he wanted the absolute maximum time spent in solitary reduced to fifteen days for any single disciplinary offense, including murder and assaults on guards. He also wanted the procedures for confining men to solitary greatly expanded and documented at every step. In a word, he wanted an end to summary, quasi-corporal punishment in Texas prisons. Rather than waiting for the judge to rule and preparing to appeal any changes he might order in solitary confinement, attorney general White conceded the issue, he says, with the approval of prison director W. J. Estelle. The state gave up the ground it had won from Turner ten years earlier in Novak v. Beto, and it showed its willingness to settle issues in the case without winning anything in return. The era of swift, certain retribution inside Texas prisons ended, and with the solitary confinement pact, the state began, piece by piece, to surrender its leverage in the case.
One afternoon late last September, inmate Calvin J. Williams jumped from his bunk in a panic. He was on fire. Someone had thrown a flammable liquid onto him. A makeshift bomb was in the cell with him too. Despite his pain, Williams picked up his mattress and flung it onto the bomb, preventing its detonation. As he flailed at the flames on his body, someone stuck him with a knife. When guards arrived seconds later, they found two convicts standing outside Williams’ cell, each of them holding a shank at the ready.
The incident involving Williams and the two shank wielders, James Michael Briddle and Warren Eugene Bridge, occurred at the Ellis I Unit, near Huntsville, one of seven prisons that the TDC had set aside for its most hardened offenders. The incident presents a nearly complete picture of the loss of control at those seven tough-guy units—the most vital prisons in the system—in the days since the Ruiz case undermined prison discipline.
The men suspected of assaulting Calvin Williams were not building tenders; the building tender system had been dismantled by order of Judge Justice. But human beings in any setting establish pecking orders. Convicts are different only in that violence plays an inordinately large role in theirs. The building tenders have been replaced, in the eyes of judges and officials, by uniformed guards, but they’ve been replaced in the prisoners’ eyes by the leaders of convict gangs. The new bullies on the cellblock are appointees of the Texas Syndicate, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mandingo Warriors, and any of a dozen other gangs that are organized, usually along racial lines, behind prison walls.
The gangs are such deadly organizations that the Bandidos motorcycle club, a terror on the outside, is regarded in the prisons as a band of hippies bent on peacefully passing prison time. Convicts in gangs kill and maim to collect extortion, to win or preserve hegemony in the prison drug traffic, and even to satisfy requirements for gang membership. They also kill and maim for purely racial reasons. Calvin Williams is black. His two suspected assailants are white, and one of them bears the tattoos that mark members of the white-supremacist Aryan Brotherhood.
Last year there were 404 armed inmate-on-inmate assaults in the Texas prison system, a record for mayhem. Gang members were involved in most of the attacks. Some of their victims weren’t as lucky as Calvin Williams: 25 convicts were killed by their peers in Texas prisons last year. In the days before the removal of the building tenders, inmate-on-inmate killings averaged fewer than three a year. If the building tenders were a gang, as the Ruiz plaintiffs alleged, they were a gang that stopped short of murder and even prevented murder. During their reign the murder rate in Texas prisons was lower than in most cities. It was safer to walk the hallways of prisons in Texas, where murderers abounded, than to walk the open streets of Houston. That’s not true anymore. Our gang, the building tenders, has been replaced by new gangs, their gangs; convicts are moving up on the prison social scale, while we and our values are moving down. Their gangs are racist and murderous; our gangs weren’t.
Gang activity inside a prison is most effective when it is tied to gang activity on the outside. Some of the inmate gangs that have come to dominate the tougher Texas prisons in the Ruiz era, notably the Hispanic Texas Syndicate, have also come to have daily, extensive business dealings in the free world. The dope trade links outside members to those inside, often through the cooperation of a guard. Because of the massive hirings necessary in the wake of Ruiz, the prison system employed men whose backgrounds it did not know or could not thoroughly check. One result is that guards have been turned, or recruited, to aid the dope trade. During 1984 most Texas wardens caught and fired two or three guards each for involvement in the dope trade. The firings didn’t stop the problem either. Wardens at some units estimate that as much as 20 per cent of the guard force may be involved. Wardens have always found pinches of marijuana inside prisons; today they’re finding pills, heroin, and, increasingly, cocaine. And drugs aren’t all that passes through the smuggling trade. The flammable liquid, probably butane or lighter fluid, that was used to set Calvin Williams on fire was a contraband item, and last fall guards at the Darrington Unit in Brazoria County came upon a pistol with ammunition that had been smuggled into the prison. According to the grapevine, it was to be used in the assassination of a chief guard.
Building tenders were appointed by the wardens and ultimately were subject to their control. The two men accused of torching Williams are not. They can be tried under the state’s attempted murder and felony assault statutes, but the prospect is unlikely to impress them, for a variety of reasons. Indictments are difficult to win in prison cases because witnesses, especially credible witnesses, are hard to find, and convicts are afraid to testify against each other. Last December a convict at the Eastham Unit was stabbed to death in a thirty-by-forty-foot recreation room where 35 other prisoners were watching television. All of them denied seeing any live violence. Briddle and Bridge are liable to punishment by prison authorities—a prospect that ten years ago would have made them miserable—but today’s disciplinary courts are toothless. The maximum penalty that can be imposed for any offense is fifteen days in solitary confinement plus revocation of the guilty convict’s good time. But Bridge and Briddle, like Williams, are on death row for 1980 murders. For all practical purposes, Bridge, Briddle, and Williams are free to commit new crimes.
So are other convicts, thousands of them. Some 8300 of the system’s 38,000 inmates, or about 22 per cent of the total, are under sentence for aggravated or armed offenses and, by the terms of a 1977 law, are ineligible for good-time credit toward parole. Thousands more are serving sentences so short that good time can make little difference in their parole or discharge dates. Others can’t control their behavior or just don’t give a damn whether they leave prison early or not. Solitary confinement, the last of the even remotely corporal punishments left on the books, is not an effective deterrent today. In fact, the evidence is that many convicts now seek placement in solitary confinement. In the Ramsey I Unit there are convicts who have spent 40 fifteen-day terms in solitary. To prolong their stays, convicts in solitary commit disciplinary offenses every fifteen days, usually by throwing urine, feces, or refuse onto their keepers. They want to remain in solitary because there they are celled alone and are exempt from work. Solitary confinement has come to mean privacy and ease.
In most of the seven tougher units there are not enough solitary confinement cells to meet demand. Wardens in some prisons have begun graduating chronic disciplinary offenders into a similar but milder category called punitive segregation. In seg, as it is called, convicts are still exempt from work but are entitled to prison privileges like having radios, watching television, participating in athletics, and going to the commissary. Today many prisoners who commit disciplinary violations are simply ambitious. They want to win a berth on a segregation wing.
The bomb that was found in Calvin Williams’ cell had been fashioned from two asthmatic inhalers. Before the Ruiz agreements, such inhalers had been forbidden in prisons, not because they could be used as weapons but because they could be abused as intoxicants. Compared with other prison weapons, though, the inhaler bomb was a luxury; a fluorescent light bulb, a crushed soft-drink can, a 55-gallon drum, and a pork-chop bone were among the weapons used by inmates last year. Weapons searches and metal detectors, both tried in Texas prisons last year, are desperate, largely futile attempts to grapple with the problem. Nothing short of a full return to Quaker conditions of imprisonment is likely to halt current prison violence. In a system where convicts work outside their cells, shank-making materials are everywhere to be found. Weapons are unnecessary in any case. One inmate was strangled last year. Not lack of access to weapons but fear of disciplinary action was what kept Texas convicts from slaughtering each other in the past. Now that fear is gone. It is so far gone that last year more than a thousand assaults on guards were recorded. Before Ruiz, assaults on guards were at a double-digit level.
The breakdown of discipline in the state’s rougher prisons affects not only convicts and guards but taxpayers as well. Ten years ago Texas could keep a man behind bars for about $1600 a year, construction and education costs excluded. Today the comparable figure it $8186. One of the reasons prisons cost more to operate is that convicts aren’t as productive as before. In Dr. Beto’s era, convict cotton pickers, like their free-world competitors, harvested between five hundred and one thousand pounds of cotton per man per day. Last year convicts opened the season by harvesting less than thirty pounds per day. For the first time in history, TDC administrators hired private contractors to harvest the cotton crop. Now, abandonment of the agricultural program is frequently advocated inside the system and at the Legislature.
During the Texas system’s calmer days, there was a silver lining to imprisonment: the educational program. Convicts went to school, if for no other reason than because school attendance exempted them from a morning’s work on the line. When refusals to report to the line began to go unpunished, school attendance dropped. The Windham School District, all of whose pupils are convicts, had an average daily attendance of 6500 in 1982-83. Its attendance dropped by more than 1000 during 1984-85, with no decrease in convict population. Beto’s chief rule for wardens was “Either you run the convicts, or they’ll run the prison.” Today attorneys and judges think that they are running the prison system. But what they’re doing is turning it over to the convicts.
Down to Detergent
The phrase wardens most often used in talking to me about their troubles was “loss of control.” According to them, discipline has been weakened so much by the Ruiz affair that our prisons are on the brink of disaster. Journalists are used to cries that the sky is falling, and as a group, we’re rightly cynical about them. But my impression after looking over Texas prisons is that the wardens aren’t bluffing, that neither they nor the Legislature is in control. That was brought home to me one day while I was sitting in the office of David Moya, warden at the Clemens Unit, a prison for first-time and second-time convicts, just inland from the southern tip of Galveston Island.
Moya, 35, is a former Hereford High School football player and military officer who wears cowboy boots and Western-cut clothes. He has bright brown eyes, a broad face with prominent cheekbones, and light, curly brown hair. His face is like a scoreboard; you can look at it and read his mood. On this particular afternoon, his face says that he thinks his job is thoroughly absurd.
Moya says that he’s got a special problem at Clemens today. A pair of attorneys—women—are inside the prison, interviewing convicts. They work for William Bennett Turner’s firm. The Ruiz case isn’t over—issues like living space and recreation programs for convicts are still being negotiated—and the job of the two lawyers is to determine what problems exist at Clemens. They have registered a complaint with Moya. A few days earlier, when two dozen convicts on one wing refused to turn out for line work, Moya ordered their diet restricted to sandwiches until they changed their minds. The sandwiches, Moya says, are prepared from a special menu drawn up by a dietitian to ensure adequate nutrition, but the lawyers say that food can no longer be used as a punishment. Moya has called the system’s central office in Huntsville for instructions. He is waiting for a return call when I walk in.
When the telephone rings, Moya picks up the receiver and says, “Yes. Yes. Boy, they’re really going to love this! I, I really hate to tell them, but if you say, yes.” His forehead wrinkles again, in deep, thick furrows. He cradles the receiver, then dials a three-digit number. Without identifying himself to the party on the other end of the line, Moya says, “Will you find those lady lawyers and tell them to stop by my office on their way out?”
Promptly there is a knocking at Moya’s door, and two women come briskly in. One of them, Elizabeth Laporte, is about thirty, with short blond hair, a thin face, and thin lips tightly closed. Gail Saliterman, also dressed in a business suit, is a little older, a little taller, and a little heftier. Her black hair is longer but disheveled, as if she is harried. There’s something brusque and unfriendly about both of them.
Moya sits down. “Well, you girls win again, I guess,” he says to the blonde, trying to be good-natured. She winces when he says “girls.” Then she glances at her dark-haired companion, who has pulled a legal notepad out of a big leather bag; she is writing something on the pad. “I mean, you’ve won about the sandwiches,” Moya says, as if he’s expecting the two lawyers to clap or cheer. They stare at him, saying nothing. He looks toward me, his brow wrinkled again, his thick lips pursed with nervousness, his eyebrows arched so sharply that they almost touch at the bridge of his nose. He looks away. “They called me from headquarters in Huntsville and said that you’re right. I can’t feed them sandwiches anymore,” he says to the blonde, still probing for a sign of acceptance.
“Well, now that we’ve got that straightened out,” snaps the dark-headed woman, “why don’t you do something about the white uniforms? A lot of them aren’t white—they’re dingy. I asked several of the men, and they said that they’re always that way. You should put more detergent in the laundry.”
Moya looks over at me with a pleading expression. A warden has a tough job, I’m sure he wants to tell me. Not only does he have to keep tabs on a thousand convicts and a staff of two hundred employees but he’s got a city to run too. There is a sewer plant at every prison unit; there’s a water system—Moya had a water shortage to contend with during one month last summer—there are boiler rooms and kitchens; most of them have industrial shops, gyms, farm sheds, fields, dairies, and the rest. And now there’s not enough detergent in the laundry. Worse, the days of discipline won’t be coming back to Texas prisons, but the lawyers will.